By just about all measures, LSU underachieved this season. The Lady Tigers were a preseason top-15 team and picked to finish near the top of the SEC. Neither came to be. LSU finished the regular season well outside the Top 25 and ranked sixth in the SEC with a losing record (7-9). The Lady Tigers limped into the NCAA tournament, losing seven of their last eight games.
Tuesday, none of it mattered and all of it was forgotten as LSU advanced to its eighth Sweet Sixteen in 12 years. The Lady Tigers upset second-seeded West Virginia 76-67. Unlike LSU, the Mountaineers had exceeded all expectations this season, winning a program-record 30 games.
So how did LSU reach its second straight Sweet 16?
Key stat: All night long, LSU was able to get into the lane via the dribble-drive or pass. That put Mountaineers defenders out of position and resulted in 24 offensive rebounds for the smaller Lady Tigers, a key to scoring some easy second-chance points and thwarting West Virginia's running game. LSU outrebounded the Mountaineers 55-40.
Turning point: LSU hadn't scored in more than three minutes and, after leading by as many as nine points in the second half, trailed 63-56. West Virginia's Asya Bussie had started to dominate inside, the Mountaineers' zone had stalled the Lady Tigers' offense, and LSU's two bigs, Theresa Plaisance and Shanece McKinney, both had four fouls.
Then came a seemingly innocuous lane violation on a Bussie free throw. That prompted a three-point swing when LSU's Danielle Ballard converted a baseline drive at the other end, igniting a 16-2 run that stunned West Virginia and propelled the Lady Tigers to an upset that, moments earlier, looked improbable.
Key player: Ballard was LSU's catalyst all night. Her drives into the lane and aggressiveness fueled the Lady Tigers when they were at their best. She not only finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, but scored six points and tallied two assists during that game-deciding run. Playing at home certainly helped LSU, but Ballard helped more.
How it was won: LSU didn't wilt when, at one point in the second half, West Virginia's Bussie outscored the Lady Tigers all by herself, 14-13. Despite the game-long rebounding advantage, the Lady Tigers lost control of the paint midway through the second half. The LSU team that played in February would have faded at that point. Instead, this LSU team responded and was resilient.
What's next: LSU will reverse roles in its matchup with third-seeded Louisville as the Cardinals will be the home team. Sunday's meeting in the KFC YUM! Center will be a rematch of a Nov. 14 game that the Cardinals won 88-67.